Paul Holmes

Even though its position on the Plame matter is arguable, it's good to see the PRSA take a stand

Even though its position on the Plame matter is arguable, it's good to see the PRSA take a stand

I've always considered the Public Relations Society of America to be almost entirely irrelevant.

Unlike some others who cover the field, I never really considered the organization important enough to spend time and energy criticizing it - except when it did something that trivialized our business, like inviting Donald Trump to give a keynote address at its national conference.

But over the past few months, the society has been taking a leadership role on some major issues. Judith Phair, its new president, has been making use of the limited bully pulpit her role provides to comment on the ethical challenges facing the profession, making it clear that the industry needs to adhere to the highest levels of integrity. For the most part, the PRSA's response has been stronger than that of the Council of PR Firms.

So I wasn't surprised to see the PRSA take a position on the recent ruling that threatened jail time to two reporters who refuse to reveal their confidential sources in the Valerie Plame case. According to Phair, the decision "poses a serious threat to the free flow of information and jeopardizes the journalist's role in a free society."

The PRSA should be commended for taking a position on this, and for recognizing that a truly free and independent press is vital to our industry's health. It's also encouraging to see the industry getting involved in an issue that presents an opportunity for PR people to work alongside their colleagues in the media (as they did on the Nike free speech case in California last year). It's so good to see the PRSA taking a stand, I almost hate to point out that, in this case, I disagree with the stand they're taking.

First of all, from a legal standpoint, I don't see the value of giving citizens the right to withhold evidence of a crime when called to testify in a court of law. And I don't believe journalists are entitled to any rights that ordinary citizens are denied - particularly at a time when the distinction between journalists and ordinary citizens is growing increasingly blurry. Of course, journalists have a right - perhaps even an obligation - to protect sources who have been promised confidentiality, but if they exercise that right, they should be prepared to face the consequences.

I also have reservations about the ethics of keeping silent in this case. It's one thing to protect a whistle-blower who provides accurate information vital to the public interest at great personal risk. It's quite another to protect senior administration officials who provided information of dubious accuracy designed to use the power of a massive institution to crush an individual following his conscience and to place a government employee at risk.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

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